During Week 2 we tried to initiate the Prison Pipeline discussion, but there was very low attendance and a lack of basic knowledge among those who did come – as always, this was part of what made the racially-charged topic really scary for some students, as they could not imagine where the conversation might go, and therefore they were unwilling to initiate it. So we had no choice but to abandon this idea completely. Instead, we continued to focus on the Corporate Person and the simple crafty activity of cutting out silhouettes, which proceeded very slowly with only very minimal participation.
Sep 9: Think Tank 2 was poorly attended – 4 students visited, only 2 stayed for the duration. I started out with the Intro to Beehive Process which I was intending to do with every Think Tank (they seemed bored, so I cut it from most subsequent sessions).
And we immediately canceled our over-ambitious Prison Pipeline concept. Unfortunately, because it seemed like we had the perfect opportunity to discuss this powerful but often unknown force in a real and tangible way – Sep 9 was the first day of the big nation-wide prison strike against forced work and slavery wages. And the video of water protectors being attacked by dogs had just come out. I printed articles again, one about the strike and one about the water protectors encampment, and we watched the video too. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to connect the local and tangible struggle against the Mountain Valley Pipeline to national-level struggles and the deeper concepts of environmental racism. I attempted to start a discussion about it, but it just seemed like much too big a leap for students. They looked genuinely frightened at the prospect of expressing opinions about these things that they could not even imagine.
I had not quite managed to finish preparing a Mini-Flip-Book lesson about corporate personhood, so we skipped that for now, and only showed it briefly and kind of randomly to a visiting class. Unfortunately that was never really effectively integrated into our Think Tank sessions, but it did come in pretty handy when we had a lot of blank wall space at the end of the month. 🙂
HB was excited to share the Cycles of Colonization diagram they had made, a big spiral on the floor with some words and pictures describing the self-perpetuating cycle that I like to simplify into “Invade, Take, Make, Expand, (repeat).” I mostly just sat back while HB had intimate conversations with two young women – they walked the spiral and discussed the the reality of what that cycle looked like in the early colonization of the local region. I was very happy that HB stepped up and took charge of this session, I think that I was intimidating the students with all my dire talk about violence and human rights abuses. One of them later became one of our most active participants (so even though it did not go according to plan, it went well). After that we just worked on cutting out shapes which would later be assembled into our Corporate Person. I was pretty disappointed by this session, and began to change my expectations for what we could really accomplish.
Early in the morning we had set up banners outside, for the school’s popular “Friday-on-the-Quad” event, and we had to immediately rush out there. We were not all that popular compared to the ice cream and hot dogs at the other end of the field. We met a few students who later attended our events, and maybe we sold 1 poster. Mostly it was a waste of our time, and I was happy that Erin and I had talked the profs out of expecting us to do that every week.
Sep 12: Think Tank 3, once again we tried to work the Prison Pipeline concept, but struggled to even get through our most basic exercises, like a mind-map variant called River of History which we adapted to analyze the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Again we had only 2 students in attendance, but we also had 3 friends from West Virginia join us briefly. We figured that we should make the most of any session, because we may not have anyone attending the next one, so we did our best to utilize some of the exercises from our previous Think Tank.
I would like to mention an activity that I was disappointed to cut out – we had this really great idea for a Privilege Mind-Map that involved an iconic human silhouette within which we would collect a list of concepts that define “whiteness” – it was a great visual because it was so obviously an empty outline of a person concept rather than an actual human being. And then we would generate lots of examples of white privilege which we would write on small “shields” cut out of grey paper, and surround the silhouette with a sort of “force-field” of privilege. The shields were designed in such a way that they would look spiky when they fully surrounded the silhouette, so that we visually make the point that one person’s privilege and comfort can be a dangerous weapon against another, and so broach this really tricky topic little by little. I was just sure that was going to be a great session – probably uncomfortable, but maybe the most important learning we could give to these students. We just could not manage to dig deeply into anything with this group, and had to meet them where they were at, which was basically totally unwilling to touch anything contentious.
So we made the most of what we had, and just played it one exercise at a time. We started with one of my favorite ice-breakers, a Back-to-Back Story-Drawing activity. This is a fun one which we repeated later. Two people sit back to back, and the first tells a story based on a prompt like “What was a time when your voice made a difference?” or “What was a time when you felt empowered?” while the second draws a picture of that story. After 5 minutes, they show the drawing, comment and compliment, and then switch. After that we did a little review about corporate personhood and the cycle of colonization.
Most of this session was centered around a Comic Strips activity, which was originally intended to build into another really powerful character, the “Dehumanization Machine,” which would be next to the “Corporate Person,” but as we lowered all of our expectations, we often ended up with activities that did not have a clear conclusion. This one was a good stand-alone activity even though we did not get much of a product out of it. It began with very rudimentary instruction on story-telling (setup-change-resolution) and how comics use a careful combination of words, pictures, and time to tell complex stories with only minimal information. I really like to explain the magic of comics with this four-frame story, seen in the first photo below. First I just draw 4 boxes – it is nothing but abstract design elements. Then I add the two characters – something there, but definitely not a story. Then I write that one word, “hi” – a spoken word happens in time, and suddenly the frames represent chronology, it becomes a story with characters in relationship (a very awkward relationship, to be sure!).
We had a group discussion brainstorming a 3-frame story of positive change in the community – one version was “Someone learns about a problem from newspaper and yard signs, that person talks to their neighbors, together they attend a community meeting,” and another was “Protest, sit-in, legislation banning fracking.” Then we gave about about 20 minutes for each student to make a 3-frame comic about positive change, and then we shared them. This was a really good level of challenge for these students, not requiring the difficult negotiation of collaboration but still pushing them well outside their comfort zones (stick figures are totally acceptable, but it has to be a good story, requiring a higher level of analysis), and they seemed to really enjoy it.
We finished our session by acting out one of the stories in a simple forum-theater activity called Living Statues. HB was very excited to lead this activity, and I was grateful that our friends were there, because students were *very* reluctant to do this (this is very common, most people have a phobia of anything resembling acting). We posed everyone in a still vignette based on the “change” frame of HB’s story, and then asked students to try and to discuss different arrangements. “How does it change if this person is standing instead of sitting?” “How does it change if this person is returning instead of running away?” “What are other ways to shift the power imbalances?” This activity is one of the very best for building understanding of basic power relationships, and has the potential to generate profound discussions. We finished with one really good line up that was perfect for tracing some active silhouettes on the wall – I wish I had photos, but because of low participation I was obliged to be a participant as well!
Sep 13: We had another visit to the Environmental Ethics class. HB and I only sat in for the purpose of meeting a local anti-MVP activist and hearing her describe the project and objections to it in great detail. I am glad we went, because we were building up a little more relationship with these students who we would see several more times later in the month. It took a lot of work to get them to be willing to be creative and put themselves out there, so every little bit helped.
Sep 14: Erin rejoined us, and HB headed home. We had a brief but really fun session with a Figure Drawing class. We took them on a quick tour of the big gallery. Then we went back into our gallery and played Captions – everyone gets a sheet of paper, and writes a sentence at the top, then passes it to the left so that the next person can draw a picture of that sentence, then folds the paper so the sentence is hidden and passes again, so that the next person writes a sentence to caption the picture, and etc. It is like an elaborate illustrated version of the telephone game, and as always, hilarity ensued. The head of the art department and one of the primary organizers of our visit *loved* this game, and kinda took over the space with peals of laughter and “Oh look at this one! OMG! Let me see that one!” which was a little surprising but in a good way. 🙂 Everyone had a blast.
Sep 15: Emily joined us at this point, and hosted her first session, playing more fun drawing games with a Drawing 1 class. She started with an Invisible Portraits mingle activity where everyone went around with a small stack of sticky notes and a pencil, having brief conversations while “blind drawing” a portrait of the person with whom they are talking (ie, looking directly into that person’s eyes while scribbling on the tiny paper for about 30 seconds). Everyone ended up with 3 totally ridiculous little drawings stuck to their chest and it really got folks laughing and warmed up.
Then we gathered around the table for an Objects in Action exercise. Everyone got one sheet of paper, and they were directed to draw a picture of one of their study objects (eg. a pencil or a vase). Then they passed their papers to the left and they were directed to draw another object interacting with the first. Then they passed their papers again and were directed to draw some sort of action happening. And finally, after one more pass, they were directed to draw “something else,” whatever they thought would complete the picture-story. They created a bunch of funny scenarios with flying light bulbs and dancing bottles, etc. At the end of the session all drawings were gathered, compared, and lightly critiqued. This was really simple and fun, a great activity for building confidence and collaboration among students who were new to drawing. This activity may not make sense outside of art class, because it was most meaningful for the students who really put in time to make their drawings look good, as it could be a reflection of their practice at the same time as it was just a silly no-pressure game. But next time I have a situation where I need to provide some confidence-building practice at the beginning of a collaborative art workshop, I will definitely remember this one as a good extended activity to get the ball rolling.
In the evening we held a True Cost of Coal presentation. Attendance was fairly low, almost exclusively the core group of environmentalist students who, from this point forward, would attend most of our sessions. I was exhausted and lacking confidence, having not given a presentation in over a year, so I was really glad that Erin and Emily allowed me to sit down as they covered the whole thing. They drew connections to the Standing Rock struggle, which made the presentation feel more relevant and current. Energy was relatively low, but at the end one of the students made an announcement about a fall break service trip related to anti-MTR struggles in West Virginia, and I think that over all it was a good session.
Near the end of this week, I spent a few long nights working on the Corporate Person, because I hoped that visible progress would draw more students in. Here is a fun little bit of time lapse emergence: